Race in the 18th Century: Who Am I?

I look down and see
My odious skin
I see bronze
Beaten by generations
Of hate, captivity, and inequality
Into a shiny façade
Of who I am
Too inadequate, worthless
To be gold
This skin, my identifying mark
In a world of bigots
Is merely an outer shell
Of the vessel that houses my soul

The formation of my identity was necessarily an exploration of the construct of race.  I am African- American.  My skin informs the casual viewer-the prescribed behavioral norms and ethnic qualities attached to perceptions of my people define the expectations.  Race is a construct that has been institutionalized and codified in the form of social inequalities.

The modern conception of race was predated by a perception of race conditioned by understandings of nature.  If one race was inferior, it was because Nature made them so.  The more sophisticated argument was that environment influenced development.  It was no mere coincidence to Montesquieu, Hobbes and Hume that the most affluent and powerful nations were concentrated in a particular region of the world.  In Hume’s 1874 essay, he notes:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly. “

Shoddy historical evidence aside, Hume’s assertion is typical of his time.  The question of whether the superior races ought to help those inferior races or let them flounder and die in the Malthusian way.  Natural restraint would eliminate the weak- plagues, famine, war would off-set the over- population of the redundant.  Polygenists accounted for discrepancies between nations by postulating that the races of their day were descendants of multiple sources.  Monogenists employed effusion to account for the dispersion of peoples descended from one source.  Amid this, race was constructed in British, French and Scottish scholarship (this understanding came much later to German scholarship) as a collective national stock.  Nicholas Hudson in his “From “Nation” to “Race”: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought” asserted that “The emergent concept of the “nation” as a linguistic and cultural community was of considerable importance to the concurrent rise of a racial worldview.”

Nearly 300 years later, these ideas are outdated but we still see the vestiges of this mindset.  Stereotypes of a racial sort employ the same lines of logic.

I have come to define myself primarily as God’s creation, secondarily as an African- American hearing- impaired woman. I am proud to be who I am, and I refuse to be defined by anyone other than God.

The poem above- I wrote it 3 years ago in High School.  I can confidently say that I no longer feel that way.

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